Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Detour (USA, 1945)

Some films seem able to embody an emotion or state of mind: with Singin’ In The Rain it’s joy, with The Shawshank Redemption it’s hope, and with Detour it’s fatalism. Time magazine, which included Detour on its (admittedly idiosyncratic) list of ‘The 100 Top Movies of All TIME’, said ‘no film is noirer’ – and certainly it’s impossible to think of one that is. An inescapable pessimism flows from the script and infects every aspect of a production that – shot in six days for a cost, depending on who you believe, of either five- or twenty-thousand dollars – is in budgetary terms a featherweight of film, but that punches like the heavyweight champion of the world.

Deadbeat piano player Al Roberts (Tom Neal) hopes to walk down the aisle – or rather ‘make with the ring and the licence’ – with his curvy, nightclub singer girlfriend, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake). She isn’t so keen and, convinced she can make it in Hollywood, moves to California, leaving him to hitchhike after her. Eventually an amiable, if unlikely, character called Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) gives Roberts a ride and, for a while, things are going well. Then, suddenly, Haskell dies and, in trying to revive him, Roberts accidentally lets Haskell’s head fall heavily against a rock. Sure that anyone to whom he tries to explain these events will think him a murderer, he swaps clothes with the corpse, and steals not only Haskell’s wallet and car, but also his identity. Once he gets far enough away, he reasons, he can dump the car and clothes and revert to being Al Roberts. And perhaps he could have, had he not picked up a shapely and sarcastic passenger named Vera (and played by Ann Savage). Unfortunately for Al, she had met the original Haskell and understandably smells a sewer rodent. Immediately, Roberts finds himself ‘tusslin’ with the most dangerous animal in the world – a woman’, and, naturally for a noir character caught in such a contest, plummeting into a personal Hell of blackmail, betrayal, crime and killing.

Although, as Roger Ebert wrote, Neal is ‘a man who can only pout’ and Savage ‘a woman who can only snarl’ their interaction is as riveting as that of any of the great onscreen couples. While many noirs allow their characters to face their fates with someone they love, or at least lust after, Detour’s spirit is far too malign for that: here the two main characters are locked together only by enmity. They scratch and stab at each other in a hate-fuelled perversion of the kind of words Bogart and Bacall characters use to flirt, and the scenes they share are as unforgettably electric as any between Lauren and Humphrey.

By including Detour in this selection of often faultless films, I don’t mean to imply that, as some low-budget classics do, it manages to be miraculously unlimited by its restrictive funding and shooting schedule, and emerges every bit as good as it would have been had it been given a blockbuster budget. A sub-student-film shonkiness is evident in every scene and there are a dozen jarring moments – my favourite of which comes when Roberts is shown ‘playing’ piano and the hands on the keys are so obviously not Neal’s they might as well be black and have an extra three fingers on each hand – that would have been lethally laughable in a lesser film. In Detour, though, the false-seeming sets and awkward acting enhance the eerie unreality of the story they showcase – and this is central to our understanding of the film.

The circumstances of the first death in which Al Roberts is involved – and from which he profits – are unlikely but believable; those of the second, however, are so improbable they are difficult to accept. Watching them we begin to wonder, if we have not already, if Al isn’t telling us porky pies. Crucially, because the film unfolds in flashbacks narrated by Roberts, we are not shown events as we are sure they occurred, but as he tells us they did – and, the more he talks, the more we wonder if Detour’s story isn’t so much a plot as an alibi. It is, more than any other aspect of the film, our doubts about the validity of what we have witnessed that explain why Detour survives in the memory much longer than many more famous and expensive efforts. Days after watching the film, you’ll likely catch yourself still puzzling over whether Al Roberts is a liar, or just the unluckiest lunk in hitchhiking history.

Even if you’re in search of a black and white classic, Detour is easy to overlook. Despite its cult status and critical acclaim, its name still has little of the cache of those of other standouts in its genre. But, runt of the film noir litter though it is, Edgar Ulmer’s brilliantly bleak 68-minute thriller deserves just as much attention as its more robust brothers like The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity. Crammed with the kind of cynical 1940s dialogue that must have tasted sour to say, Detour is a dark little gem and, as those idiosyncratic critics at Time pointed out, unquestionably the noirest of noirs.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Fist of Fury (Hong Kong, 1972)

Bruce Lee is a legitimate legend, but the films he starred in – as distinct from his performances within them – are generally disappointing. Too often, the scripts are un-involving, the actors unconvincing and the direction uninspired. Fist of Fury is the exception – a high-impact martial arts masterpiece worthy of combat cinema’s greatest star, and of any audience’s attention.

Lee plays Chen Jeh, the standout student of Jing Mo, a patriotic but pacifistic Chinese martial arts academy in Japanese-controlled Shanghai. After Jing Mo’s master dies, representatives of a Japanese bushido school burst in and insult his memory. Although his superiors advocate non-violence, Chen soon retaliates, and his shin-smashing assault on the entire student body at the dojo downtown sparks a gang war that’s quickly intensified by his investigations into his beloved teacher’s mysterious demise. (And his habit of punching Japanese people until blood leaks out of their eyeballs.)

To enjoy the action in many martial arts movies, you’re required to forget all logic and suppress every twinge of disbelief. (Frankly, I question the effectiveness of the ninja death star when employed in the average pub brawl, and I’m not convinced that, faced with an army of exquisitely skilled sword-wielding assassins, even the most polished practitioner of Tiger Crane Kung Fu wouldn’t be better off just distracting them for a second and running away like a deadbeat babyfather.) The fights in Fist of Fury, however, require no such indulgence. Lee, and director Lo Wei, stage a succession of low-tech tear ups that are so spectacular, and so realistic, they make you duck and dodge in your seat – and, beyond that, Lee’s transcendent charisma and clearly genuine ability to beat up practically anyone in the world sweep away any lingering improbabilities.

Frequently, kung-fu films only come alive during the fight scenes – and, on top of that, many of those fights scenes often seem to have been included not to propel the story or illuminate the characters, but to satisfy some studio quota of punches per hour. Fury avoids both these drawbacks through the constantly increasingly tension created by the certainty that Chen’s revenge does not – as is almost always the case in action movies – somehow take place outside the law. Even as we are cheering him on, we’re aware that Chen’s actions are criminal; that, for however admirable a reason, he has made himself a murderer; and that he’ll be held accountable for it. Because of this, none of the fights he picks are unimportant – each is an encounter for which he, a young man of supreme potential, is prepared to sacrifice his freedom and future – and none of the quieter scenes are insignificant. There’s even a believable love interest, whose charming concern for Chen’s physical safety in the short-term, and for their shared aspirations in the long-, remind us that the events of this film aren’t being played out in one of those uncomplicated movieworlds where life-long happiness is the inevitable product of giving your enemies a righteous hiding in the final scene.

This certainly isn’t a perfect picture – the dialogue is often threadbare, the bad guys are all one-dimensional dastards, and, at one point, an iron bar-bending Russian mafia boss is flown in just to give Lee’s character an extra ass to kick – but its intelligence in maintaining a tight plot and its bravery in eschewing an all-is-well ending mark it out from the likes of Enter- and Way Of The Dragon. Of course, the whole production is just an excuse to display Lee at his lightning-limbed, bare-chested best, but it’s all executed with such panache and aplomb we don’t mind any more than we mind a Laurel and Hardy film being just an excuse for Stan and Ollie to lark about.

The mere presence of Lee makes Fist of Fury superior to virtually all other kung fu films; every moment he is onscreen provides an emphatic answer to the question – if you’ve ever felt the need to ask it – of why he is hero-worshipped with such unparalleled intensity even decades after his death. But that’s not enough to make this a great movie. What elevates Fury into a classic is that, for once, everyone else in a Bruce Lee film raises his or her efforts to something approaching his level. If you have even the weakest craving for a cinematic serving of sweaty machismo and undiluted adrenaline, Fist of Fury is the picture to see.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Wings of Desire (Germany, 1987)

The story is simple: angels are around us every day – listening to our thoughts, recording our actions, and puzzling over our idiosyncrasies – but we never know they are there. When one of them falls in love with an emotionally unfulfilled trapeze artist, he has to choose between his feelings for her and his life among the immortals. It seems like the sort of subject matter Hollywood would serve up as a confection – and it is. In 1998, Wings of Desire was not so much remade as diluted into City of Angels starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan. Whether or not you’ve seen that film, and whatever you thought about it, I’m convinced you’ll enjoy the original – because it’s practically impossible to imagine that anyone wouldn’t.

This is one of the world’s most life-affirming films. It’s festival of a life, an ode to the tragedies and triumphs that occur in every moment and across every lifetime. Filled with obvious but unobtrusive symbolism – the Berlin wall suggesting the division between the physical and the divine, history and ambition, life and death; the trapeze artist dangling, literally and figuratively, between Heaven and Earth – it finds sensual answers to spiritual questions, and is about both our biggest ideas and smallest experiences.

It’s also about Berlin, its architecture and atmosphere, its past and its prospects, as they were understood in the last years of the East-West divide. The city, still withered from the Second World War but somehow defiantly beautiful, is as much the star of picture as Bruno Ganz – who plays Damiel, an angel who longs to be human. His partner – around Berlin and throughout eternity – is Cassiel, another celestial overseer but one more resigned to the limits of his angelic existence. Together and apart, they eavesdrop on the interior monologues of troubled Berliners – a woman about to give birth; an OAP frustrated by man’s inability to properly embrace peace; and, most movingly, a young man about to kill himself – and, where they can, they impart a sudden and inexplicable feeling of consolation.

In an initially absurd sub-plot – which threatens to unbalance the picture but is integrated so smoothly it actually enhances it – Peter ‘Lieutenant Columbo’ Falk appears as himself, and eventually reveals he used to be an angel, but gave it up for the chance to live and love and say, ‘Just one more thing…’ in three thousand and thirty-six different ways whilst wearing a grubby raincoat. Like everyone else, Falk can feel an angel’s presence but, unlike everyone else, he understands the sensation. Recognising that Damiel is near one night, he encourages him to become human by eulogising the joys of mortal existence, praising not the life-changing thrills of falling in love or fathering a child, but the gentle delight of warming your hands on a cold day or deciding to smoke a cigarette. It’s enough to seduce Damiel, and he is soon no longer an angel.

The moment when he becomes a man – the film flicking from monochrome to colour – is cinematic magic. Suddenly, Damiel is free to taste hot coffee, tie a child’s shoelace, and buy a silly hat. He once was blind, but now he sees. Stopping a man on the street, he asks him to identify the colours in the graffitied faces on the Berlin Wall. ‘What’s this?’ he says, pointing to one of them.
‘Blue,’ says the man.
‘Blue!’ exclaims Damiel, as if he’d just recognised a long-lost loved one. His pleasure is exquisite, and his gratitude for being alive inexpressible. It’s a scene that could have come from It’s A Wonderful Life (had Frank Capra shot that movie in colour).

There are several such moments the film, and it’s because of Ganz that they all work as well as this one. None of us – except perhaps Peter Falk – has any idea what it feels like to wait from the beginning of time until the end of the 1980s just to smile and have someone smile back, and yet, when Ganz shows us the experience onscreen, it instantly rings true.

It’s misleading, though, to discuss this film purely in terms of its plot or performances. This is, for much of its running time, a mood piece unconcerned with story. It likes its characters to indulge in sensory delights for their own sake whilst pondering the great questions, and it likes its audience to do the same. That we go along with this, and never once want it to hurry up and cut to the bit where the erstwhile angel gets the girl, is predominantly due to its astonishing visual beauty.

When Wim Wenders wrote the script for Wings of Desire with the acclaimed Austrian playwright Peter Handke, he pulled off something special. When he filmed it with the equally acclaimed French cinematographer Henry Aleken, he pulled off a miracle. The idea of shooting in black and white everything we see from an angel’s-eye view, and in colour everything we see from a human’s perspective, is borrowed from A Matter of Life Death – but employed with a skill and confidence that’s totally original. If you’ve ever literally liked the look of a film, this one will mesmerize you.

This isn’t an archetypal date movie; it’s certainly not a romantic comedy, and it never makes the potential transition from eccentric celebration of human beings, and being human, to soupy love story. Even so, if your partner ever turns to you and suggests you spend an intimate evening watching City of Angels, turn to him or her and suggest you watch Wings of Desire instead.